Cape Town to become first city without water

Graphic by Kinsey Ratzman ’21

Graphic by Kinsey Ratzman ’21


Cape Town, the second most populous city in South Africa, is on track to become the first major city in the world to run out of water. According to TIME Magazine, once the city dams reach 13.5 percent capacity, municipal water access will be cut off for homes and most businesses, an occurrence that is marked as “Day Zero.” According to the city’s estimates, it will occur around April 16 of this year. 

The Western Cape region of South Africa, where Cape Town is located, has been in the midst of a severe drought for the past three years. Professor Girma Kebbede of the Mount Holyoke geography department explained, “The semi-desert climate covers the Sahel region of West Africa, parts of the Horn of Africa, and southern Africa. Here, temperatures are high, rainfall is deficient and the dry season is long.”

Since 2007, Cape Town officials have been warned that finding additional water sources would be necessary in order to keep up with population shifts and mitigate the challenges expected to come with climate change. The city had taken many steps to alleviate the problem and by 2014, all of its major reservoirs were nearly full. The New York Times reported that Cape Town received international recognition for its “strong environmental policies” and advancement in water management. But Cape Town’s domestic progress and international interest has yet to result in a long-term solution to their water crisis. 

The city’s measures worked so well that officials postponed looking for new sources of water. They remained dependent on rainfall, leaving them in a precarious position when they were hit with the worst drought in over a century, according to The Washington Post.

In an interview with National Geographic, Kevin Winter, lead researcher at an urban water group at the University of Cape Town, said, “It’s like driving a motor car and looking in the rear-view mirror. They solved the old problems, but they didn’t recognize the risks ahead. Now here comes the juggernaut.”

The city has been working to quickly install long-term solutions, but it is unlikely that they can be implemented before “Day Zero” approaches or even before May, when the rainy season is projected to arrive. The city has undertaken last-minute plans for desalination plants and groundwater extraction, but “these options are unlikely to find relief for Day Zero,” said Keddebe.

Meanwhile, residents in Cape Town have been under strict limitations, and washing vehicles, watering gardens and filling pools with city water has been banned. Once “Day Zero” hits, water will only be supplied for the most essential services, like hospitals and schools — residents will have to line up to receive a daily water ration at one of the 200 collection points throughout the city.

Claire Lunetta ’20, an environmental studies major emphasized the restrictions placed on Cape Town residents. “On Feb. 1, they reduced the amount of water per person, per day, to 13.1 gallons, which is essentially bare minimum for humans,” she said. “[A]fter day zero it is going to be 6.6 gallons a day, per person. Your average American uses about 80 - 100 gallons a day.”

Lunetta also said, “There is something to be said about the difference between Cape Town and our major city, L.A., which has never had enough water,” said Lunetta. “But L.A. has had the infrastructure to bring water, and the financial means to do so.”  L.A., like many cities in California, is under significant water stress.  However, compared to  Cape Town, L.A. has a fairly heterogeneous water profile. According to research published by the Public Policy Institute of California,  the state’s water supply is “variable and diverse.” 

Nevertheless, as climate change and other stressors make their impact, L.A. and other vulnerable areas might need to prepare for increasingly uncertain water sources.  

Some have suggested that extreme scarcity will soon become a new way of life for those living in Cape Town and other drought-prone regions. Professor Kebbede agreed. “South Africa is already experiencing decreasing rainfall,” he said, “and dry spells are likely to get worse as the century advances. South Africa is not the only country that is facing a water deficient future. Over thirty African nations could face extreme water stress before mid-century.”